Who's Got That Vision Thing

There was a time when running a company was simple. Some bookkeepers told you if you were making money and you adjusted your products and workers accordingly. No muss, no fuss.

But somewhere along the line, science got involved. Instead of a few bookkeepers, economic analysts now run scientific financial models to predict every up and down in the market. Companies no longer simply buy materials and stuff them into a warehouse, they have hordes of logistical analysts to deliver what the workers need the instant they need it. Workers no longer take orders from a former member of the shop who managed to rise to the exalted rank of supervisor. Now a dozen layers of managers send reports to each other, do lunch, and make PowerPoint presentations in between "business trips" on the company jet for weekend "meetings" in Paris.

Perhaps one of the oddest new advents is the mission statement and its equally odious cousin, the vision statement. These two teats on a boar hog came into substantial vogue around the time King George I mumbled his way through the Presidency. In those days, he was famous for talking about "the vision thing". Of course, like all Bushspeak, this meant he was clueless about the subject he was addressing. In fairness, I don't think he started the trend, but it is stupid enough to sound Bushonian.

For the uninitiated, a mission or vision statement is a clear, short explanation of what the purpose of the company is. Apparently, "we make things and sell them for money" isn't clear enough for the modern manager.

Having been involved in drafting several of these literary turds, I can tell you they're never clear, short, or even particularly readable. They're written by committee, usually managers who should be spending more time out on the floor helping workers make things to sell for money. Instead, they prepare endless rounds of drafts over three-martini lunches. Then, they enlessly review each one with an eye on how they can hike their leg on the draft and mark their editorial territory. If the Founding Fathers had written the Declaration of Independence like this, the British would still be on the boat waiting for the Americans to show up on Bunker Hill.

For all their apparent complexity, the statements only come in one of two flavors - long or short.

Long versions typically contain several sentences, all of which are required by law to contain at least 57 words, 16 semicolons, and a healthy sprinkling of commas. If you can shove everything into a single sentence, so much the better. Proponents of this form believe you can can boil the most complex company down to a single sentence in much the same way you can boil an entire horse down to a single pot of glue.

The short version advocates aim to keep it simple and usually do - so simple, in fact, their vision/mission is a statement of the obvious. "Company X believes the customer is always right", is a good example. So is, "Company Y exists to make money for our stockholders." I've suggested, "We believe in excessive executive compensation" several times, but the suits always think this is a little too snarky.

So why do companies put themselves through this?

Well, a long line of very highly paid experts told them this is how you "invest employees in the overall goals of the enterprise" - a long-winded version of "you want your employees to give a shit about whether the company tanks". Apparently, paying decent wages and providing health insurance isn't a, "cost-effective economic rationalization of benefits vis a vis employee commitment.

The other reason they produce these tortured monuments to stupidity is because when you make 400% more than the employee on the shop floor, you have to make it sound like you're doing something for all that dough - aside from the weekly trips to St. Andrews, Scotland for golf outings with Tom D. and Jack "the Hat" Abramoff.

You also want to show that you share the concerns of your employees. Perhaps not so much that you'd refrain from laying all of them off to get your 600% performance bonus for the quarter - but let's not quibble over details.

We actually believe in that last reason, and that's why we believe executives will be more than willing to stand by their fine vision statements, even in a court of law. I advocate that the next Jeff Skilling or Kenny Boy Lay who comes along should have their mission statements read to the jury and if the words, "we exist to screw our shareholders, employees, and customers out of as much money as possible" doesn't appear they should be convicted on the charge of "failing to live up to the vision thing". Suggested sentence? Fifty years in lockup and hearing their mission statement read to them continuously 24 X 7, without the possibility of parole.

That seems more than fair to me.

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Wednesday, May 24, 2006

AddThis Social Bookmark Button